Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Empires and Nations

Ecole Doctorale Sciences Po in Paris is hosting an international law conference in July 2008 titled 'Empires and Nations.' (here)
The conference will focus not only on theoretical and philosophical approaches, but also on specific case studies.

What is the difference between an empire and a nation? How a nation can metamorphose into an empire? What are the characteristics of each? We had many empires in the world history. The Roman empire, Persian empire, Chinese empire come to mind. Any nation that develops a desire to expand and dominate over the rest of the world can be classified as an empire. Thus, the English monarchy with its numerous colonies was also an empire. Napoleon's France was an empire. Perhaps, today the US can also be classified as an empire, because it is in search for global hegemony. Of course, there are different types of empires, some more benevolent than others. But the major difference between a nation and an empire is that, the latter has a tendency of reaching towards many nations and embracing them into its sphere of influence. Thus, an empire is more heterogeneous and culturally pluralistic, whereas a nation, while still composed of ethnic minorities, is less heterogeneous.

The case study of the Soviet Union is definitely a strong reference-point. Is an empire necessarily anti-democratic because of its tendency to center on a majority group to the detriment of smaller groups? Does heterogeneity necessarily imply tolerance? In the Soviet Union there were many nations with widely diverse religions, cultures, ethnicities. It was centered on the Russian nationality to the diminution of other nations, that were smaller in numbers. It was a vastly heterogeneous empire, and it also tried to be tolerant with regard to nationhood. In fact, due to the Communist ideology nationhood was suppressed at all costs. Communism was an overarching ideology that took priority over everything else, nationality, ethnicity, etc. All the slogans of Communism were international: 'workers of all countries unite!' (Proletarii vsekh stran, soedinyaytes!) Religion was suppressed too and was perceived to be antithetical to education. So, empires tend to be more transnational. But a nation that is not an empire, once crystallized in identity and structure, is very conducive to ultra-sensitive nationalism and intolerance.

One thing should be remembered, however, when a nation tries to project its nationhood over others and dictates its will over others, thereby turning into an empire, it is by its very essence nationalistic, because it assumes that it is superior over others and is therefore destined to rule over others. That is why, Napoleon, Caesar, Alexander the Great were cosmopolitan in that they tried to create a unified empire out of all nations and countries in the world. Yet they also were very nationalistic because they envisioned their nation as dominating over others.

Maybe it is really about the package rather than the contents. Perhaps, an empire is a design, a facade of a building structure that is called a 'nation.' An empire is simply a highly ambitious nation that is capable of materializing its ambitions at many costs to itself and the world.

(Octavius Caesar Augustus above ruled over Rome from 27 BC to 14 AD.)

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